Alexandra Kollontai's Red Love
Early that morning a Red Guard brought her a note from Volodya.
“Vasya, my wife, my beloved comrade. I don’t care about the case against me now. Let them ruin me. Only one thought torments me, maddens me – that I might lose you. I can’t live without you, Vasya. You must know that. If you no longer love me, make no efforts in my behalf. Let them shoot me. Yours, only yours – Volodya.”
And on the side, diagonally, “I love only you. Whether you believe me or not. And I will insist on it until I die.”
Another sentence, in a corner, “I’ve never re-reproached you with your past. Try to understand and forgive me now. Yours, with all my heart and soul.”
Vasya read the note over and over, and felt happier. He was right. He had never reproached her that she had not been a virgin.
After all, men were like that. What could he do when that hussy threw herself on his neck? Act like a monk? She read the note again, kissed it, folded it carefully, and put it in her pocket. And now to get busy, to get Volodya out of trouble.
She wore herself out, rushing from pillar to post,. growing excited, running afoul of bureaucracy and the indifference of men, giving up, losing all hope. Then, summoning all her strength, she began to fight with renewed courage. She would not permit the triumph of the wrong, she would not let those scheming slanderers worst Volodya.
She gained her most important point. Comrade Toporkov took the matter in his own hands. And after looking into it he made the following decision: “As the charges are groundless, the case is to be dropped. Zviridov and Malitchenko are to be arrested.”
The next morning Vasya could not leave her bed. She had contracted typhus. In the evening she recognized no one, not even Volodya, when he returned.
In her memory Vasya’s illness seemed a dull dream. It was night when she regained consciousness. She looked about. An unfamiliar room, medicine bottles on the table, a nurse with a white neckerchief sitting beside her bed. Wiry, no longer young, a severe expression on her face. As Vasya looked at her, it bothered her to see a nurse sitting there. The white kerchief irritated her. Why? She hardly knew herself.
“Would you like a drink?” Leaning forward, the nurse held a glass to her lips.
Vasya drank, and lost consciousness again. Vaguely, as in a dream, she felt Volodya bending over her and adjusting her pillow. She became entirely unconscious. She had a, dream; perhaps it was real? There were two shadows in the room; no, not shadows – women, but not real women. One white, one gray. Turning, twisting, their arms entwining. Not a dance, but a struggle. And now Vasya understood. Life and death had come to her, were fighting for her. Which would win?
Vasya was frightened, so frightened that she wanted to scream. But she could not utter a sound. This frightened her even more. Her heart beat, pounded, as though it would burst any moment. Ping. ping. Ping. There was shooting on the street.
She opened her eyes. In the feeble light of the night-lamp she saw that she was alone. It was night. She listened. A scratching – mice – as if they were rolling something under the floor. Ever nearer, ever closer. And now Vasya was torn by a new fear. She felt that the mice were trying to get on her bed, on her. And she would not be able to drive them away.
Beginning to cry, she called feebly: “Volodya. Volodya. Volodya.”
“Vasya darling. My little sweetheart. What’s the matter?”
Volodya was bending over her, anxiously peering into her eyes.
“Volodya, are you alive? Really?” Her strengthless hand felt about Volodya’s head.
“I’m alive. We’re both alive, my dearest. Why are you crying? What’s the matter with my Vasyuk? Were you dreaming? Are you delirious again?”
Tenderly he kissed her hands and stroked her damp short hair.
“No, no, I wasn’t dreaming. The mice were scratching so.... ” she defended herself, with a faint smile.
“The mice?” Volodya laughed. “My Vasyuk has become so brave that it’s afraid of mice! I told the nurse that you shouldn’t be left alone. It’s a good thing I came home just now.”
Vasya would have liked to ask him where he had been. But she was so weak that, she couldn’t talk. A delicious weakness, however, a sort of drowsiness. And the nicest part of it all was his sitting beside her. She held his hand in her feeble grasp, would not let go.
Her smiling lips whispered: “He’s alive.”
“Of course, I’m alive,” laughed Vladimir. Gently he kissed her forehead.
Vasya opened her eyes. “But what happened to my hair? Did they cut it off?”
“That’s nothing. Don’t worry about that. Now you’re a real boy, a real Vasyuk.”
Vasya smiled. She was happy.
Volodya did not leave her. As she dozed he sat on the chair beside her and watched over her sleep.
“Sleep, Vasya, sleep. You mustn't look at me with your big eyes. You’ll have plenty of time to look at me when you’re well again. If you don’t sleep now you’ll be sick again, and the doctor’ll scold me. He’ll tell me I’m a poor nurse.”
“You won’t go away?”
“Where would I go? I sleep here every night, on the floor beside you. I’m less worried when I’m able to see you. In the daytime I’m working hard.”
“Working? In the commissariat?”
“Yes, indeed. Everything’s all right again. Those rogues have been arrested. But you’re not to talk, you impossible Vasyuk. Sleep. If you don’t go to sleep, I’ll go away.”
Her helpless fingers tightened their hold on his hand. But she closed her eyes quite submissively.
It was so wonderful, so sweet to fall asleep with Volodya sitting beside her, looking at her so anxiously and tenderly.
“You must sleep, you bad, naughty boy.”
“I’m asleep. But I love you.”
Volodya bent over her and kissed her eyelids, long, very gently, tenderly.
And Vasya could have wept with joy. She wad willing to die right then and there. No greater happiness could ever be hers.
The memory of what she had felt then made Vasya start. Was such a thing impossible now? Had her heart been right when it told her that she could never know greater happiness?
And now that joy, that happiness would be no more. She was going to him, to her beloved. He had asked for her, was waiting for her. He had sent a comrade to tell her to hurry. And he had sent her money for the trip. And a dress. So he must love her. Why, then, would she never be so happy again? Vasya wanted so much to believe in her happiness; but doubt rankled in her breast. She had no real faith.
In a brown study, Vasya again thought of the past. They had parted quite suddenly that time. The front was shifted. When Vladimir went away, Vasya still was so weak that she could hardly walk. They parted on the best of terms. The nurse was not mentioned again. Vasya had come to understand that the nurse had meant no more to him than a glass of whiskey. “You drink it, and it’s forgotten.”
Vasya had gone back home, and immediately returned to her work.
At that time she believed that everything was as it had been, that everything was all right again. Now Vasya remembered that even then there had been a load on her heart. Something, somewhere, was raising its head. Was it bitterness because of the red-lipped nurse, or was it suspicion? Yet Vasya loved Volodya.
The fear they had shared, and her illness had bound them even closer together. They had loved each other before, too; but they had not felt so near to each other. Now, after the distress they had gone through together, their hearts were more united. Still, Vasya could no longer find the joy of a bright spring morning her love. It had become gloomier, overcast with clouds. Yet it had grown deeper and stronger.
Besides, how could one have been in the mood for love and joy?
There were the fronts, the partings, the conspiracies, the mobilization of the Communists. They were threatened from all sides, were head over heels in work. Working in the Housing Bureau of the Soviet, Vasya had to take care of the refugees. It was there that she had developed her idea of organizing a community house to conform with her views, Alexeyevitch had helped her with word and deed. And Vasya had plunged into her work.
She lived thus for months. Of course she thought of Vladimir, always had him in her heart. But she did not have much time to yearn for him. And he too had his work. Everything seemed to be running along smoothly. He had stopped trying to show off so much, and was at peace with the “Executive.”
Suddenly he surprised Vasya in her attic. Quite unexpectedly. He had been wounded m a skirmish during the retreat. Nothing dangerous, but he needed a rest. He was given leave, and had come to board with his wife.
Vasya was glad. Yet she could not help thinking: Why just now? Could it not have been two months before, or a month later? Vasya was so worried just then, and overwhelmed with work. A Congress was in session at the moment, and the Housing Bureau was being reorganized. She was fighting for her community house. Impossible to tell when the work would be finished. She had almost had to tear herself in two. And now Volodya was there, wounded, in need of care. How would she manage?
Troubled, she could not be really happy.
Vladimir, however, was delighted as a child.
He had brought her a pair of shoes, keeping the promise he had made on her first day in his house. “Put them on, Vasya. I want to see how your little doll’s feet look in them.”
Vassilissa had no time. There was a meeting of the Housing Bureau. But she did not want to hurt Vladimir.
She put them on, and felt that she saw her feet for the first time. They really looked like a doll’s.
Radiant with joy she looked at Volodya – she even forgot to thank him.
“I want so much to pick you up, Vasyutka. But I can’t, on account of my hand. I love your little feet. And your brown eyes.”
Vladimir was content, excited and happy. He talked and joked.
But Vasya, who should have been at the meeting long before, listened only half-heartedly. She glanced at the alarm clock beside the little mirror on her dresser. The minutes were slipping way. They were waiting for her at the meeting. They would be angry. She was keeping everybody waiting and it wasn't proper for the chairman to be late.
Vassilissa came back home late, toward evening. She was tired. There had been unpleasant incidents. She was worried.
Climbing the stairs to her attic she thought, It's nice, after all, to have Volodya there. I’ll talk over my troubles with him.”
But when she entered the room Volodya wasn't there. Where might he be? His cap was there, his coat was hanging in its proper place. He had probably gone out for a moment. She cleaned up the room, and put the teakettle on the petroleum burner. But Volodya had not come back. Where could he be? She went out into the hall – he was not in sight. She waited, grew worried.
Again she went into the hall. There was Vladimir, coming out of the Fedosseyevs’ apartment. They were laughing, parting like the best of friends. Why had Volodya gone to them? He knew of their duplicity.
At last you ve come back, Vasya. Your cage depressed me so, I was ready to hang myself. All alone the livelong day. I was glad to meet Comrade Fedosseyev. He took me along with him.”
“Don’t have anything to do with them, Volodya. You know they’re always scheming.”
“You wouldn’t ask me to die of boredom in your cage? Don’t run away for the whole day, then I won’t go to the Fedosseyevs.”
“But I have work to do. I’d be only too glad to come home to you earlier, but I can’t. It’s impossible.”
“Of course, you’re busy. But how did I manage to sit beside you at night when you had typhus? And I used to get away in the daytime too, to look after you. I came to you on sick leave, Vasya I still have some fever.”
Vasya heard the reproach in his voice. He was offended at her having been away all day. But what could she do? There was the reorganization of her department, the coming Congress.
“I believe you’re not overjoyed to have me here,” Vladimir said. “I didn’t think I’d find you like this.”
“How can you say such a thing? I’m not glad? I? My dearest. My beloved. My sweetheart.”
She threw herself into his arms. They almost upset the petroleum burner.
“There, there. And I was ready to think you had stopped loving me. That you might have someone else. You seemed so cold, so indifferent. Even your eyes were strange. Not at all tender.”
“I’m so tired, Volodya. I’ve no energy left....”
"You’re my tireless little tomboy I” Pressing Vassilissa to him, Vladimir kissed her.
Thus they lived together in their "cage" in the attic. In the beginning they managed. Although Vasya found it hard to devote herself to both her work and her man, she was happy nonetheless.
There always was someone to talk to, to advise her, to sympathize with her when she was disappointed, to help her plan for the future.
But the housekeeping was a nuisance. Vladimir had become accustomed to good food at the front. But Vasya’s household? She brought her dinner from the public kitchen. She had no sugar with her tea but only rock-candy. For the first few days they lived on the groceries Vladimir had brought.
"I've brought you some food: flour, sugar, sausage. For I know how to live, like a sparrow under the gables, without a bite to eat in the house."
When they had used up Volodya’s provisions, however, they were dependent on the public kitchen. And Volodya didn’t like it. He grumbled: "Why are you forever feeding me millet and millet gruel? I'm no rooster.”
“There’s nothing else to be had. I have to live on my ration.”
“What are you talking about! The Fedosseyevs have no more than you, but yesterday they served me a real dinner, and a wonderful one at that. Fried potatoes and herring and onions.”
“Fedosseyeva has the time for housekeeping. But I – don’t you see that I’m wearing myself out without attending to anything but my affairs?”
“You’ve undertaken too much. That’s the trouble. Why do you bother about this community house? The Fedosseyevs were saying....”
“I know what the Fedosseyevs are saying!” exploded Vasya. She was hurt at Vladimir’s associating with her enemies. “And you’re not acting like a comrade when you listen to them, and join them against me.”
They quarreled. Both lost their tempers. Then both were ashamed of themselves, and they made peace. Vasya, however, grew more worried over her inability to take better care of her man. He had come to her, wounded, and she had offered him food from the public kitchen. He had taken better care of her the other time, and he had brought her a pair of shoes.
It grieved her to see Voloyda eating nothing. He would swallow two or three spoonfuls of soup, and would push away the plate.
“I’d rather go hungry than eat this dishwater. Make some tea, and try to get some bread somehow or other. I’ll send you some flour later, from the front, so you’ll be able to return it.”
Impossible to go on that way. She had to find some way out.
Vasya hurried to the meeting. But her head was a jumble of resolutions and millet gruel. What could she give Volodya for dinner?
If only she had time she would find a way, would think, and prepare something.
She was delighted to meet her cousin on the way. Just at the right time. The cousin had a daughter, a lively, capable girl just out of school. Now she was living with her parents, had no definite occupation, but was helping her mother with the housework. Her name was Styosha.
There was no difficulty about the arrangements. Styosha would spend the day with them and keep house. In exchange, Vasya would share her payok with her cousin. A load off her mind, Vasya, hurried on to her meeting. Tomorrow Volodya would have decent meals.
Styosha proved to be capable. And she got along well with Volodya. They kept house together exchanged some of their supplies, while Volodya received a number of things from the union for old times’ sake. Vasya was content. Volodya no longer complained about the food. But now he had another grievance against her.
“You take care of everybody, but I mean nothing to you.”
Again Vasya was distressed. Thus was she torn back and forth between Volodya and her work. But why had he come at such a feverish time?
She tried to explain to Vladimir. But he was angry, pretended not to understand.
“You’ve grown so cold, Vasya. You've even forgotten how to kiss.”
“I’m so tired, Volodya. All my energy’s gone,” was her excuse.
But Volodya was angry. Vasya herself realized that things couldn’t go on that way. Here her lover had come to visit her, after an endlessly long time, and she was gone all day, working, returning only late at night, dead tired, scarcely able to tumble into bed. How could she think of kissing!
There were painful incidents. One evening Volodya began to caress her. But she fell asleep the moment her head touched the pillow.
The next morning Vladimir teased her. Where was the fun in petting a lifeless body? He was laughing, but she saw that he was offended. She too felt unhappy about it, felt that she was to blame. He could really believe that she no longer loved him. But where was she to get the energy for everything?
One day Vasya came home earlier than usual.
Vladimir was preparing the dinner for himself.
“What’s the matter? Where is Styosha?”
“Your Styosha is a little devil. I threw her out. If she dares to show her face here again I’ll throw her down four flights of stairs.”
“Why, what happened? What did she do?”
“Take my word for it, she’s a devil. I wouldn’t have chased her away for nothing. I don’t have to tell you the whole story. You’ll only get excited. She’s a vulgar, filthy creature. I don’t want to see any trace of her here.”
Vasya saw that he was furious at Styosha, and determined to ask no more questions. She probably had stolen something, she thought. Such things often happened. And Vladimir was very strict about his things. Though he was very liberal otherwise, and always glad to share what he had with his comrades, yet he had that possessive instinct. Let anyone dare take something of his without his permission, never forgive him.
“What’ll become of our household?”
“Let the house go to the devil! I’ll go to the hotel. And I’ve found some friends. I won’t starve!”
Styosha went to see Vasya in the Housing Bureau, demanded her payok.
“What happened between you and Vladimir Ivanovitch, Styosha? What did you do?”
“I didn’t do a thing.” Styosha’s eyes flashed as she pushed her comb more firmly into her hair. “Your Vladimir Ivanovitch always was fresh to me so I slapped his face good and hard for him. He spit blood for quite a while. And he won’t try it again.”
“How silly you are, Styosha. Vladimir Ivanovitch was only playing with you.”
Vasya was trying to remain calm, but her head was swimming.
“A nice sort of play that was. Why, he had me down on the bed! It’s a good thing that I’m strong. No one can have me against my will.”
Vasya tried to convince Styosha that it had all been meant playfully, as a joke, and that now Vladimir Ivanovitch was really cross with her. But Styosha looked more stubborn. What was the difference what it was all about. She would never cross that threshold again.
Gloom enveloped Vasya’s heart. She didn’t blame Volodya, didn’t even feel hurt. It was her own fault, after all. Why was she so cold? She had offended Volodya. He might actually believe that she no longer loved him. But this was nasty. Why had he touched the girl? Styosha was barely out of her childhood. It was a good thing that she knew life. What might not have happened otherwise? The incident preyed on Vasya’s mind. She was undecided as to whether she should tell Vladimir that she knew everything, or whether she should remain silent.
But Vasya had no more opportunity of talking with Vladimir.
A new order was inaugurated. Vladimir hunted up his old friends, the employees of the union. He disappeared for days at a time. They never saw each other. In the morning, when Vasya went to the Housing Bureau, Volodya was still sound asleep. When she stopped in during the day he wasn’t there. When she came home at night the attic was still empty.
Vasya would be nervous. She didn’t know whether she should go to bed or wait to have tea with him. She heated her supper on the petroleum burner, arranged her papers for the morning, listened to the steps in the hall.
That wasn’t Vladimir.
She put out the fire, for economy’s sake, and took up her papers again. She looked over reports, sorted petitions. Someone was hurrying up the stairs. Was it he? No, it wasn’t Vladimir.
Vasya would go to bed alone, would soon be sleeping the sleep of exhaustion. But even in her sleep she would listen. It was so cold and dreary without him.
Sometimes he would be merry when he came home; he would wake up Vasya, and make love to her. He would be burning to tell her everything, would have thousands of plans up his sleeve.
Then Vasya would feel so happy, so content. All her troubles would disappear.
Sometimes, however, Vladimir wasn’t entirely sober when he came; walking heavily, he would look about him scowling, with watery eyes. He was full of self-reproach on these occasions, but he blamed Vassilissa too. What a life! In a cage, under the roof! No pleasure, no diversions – a woman, and yet not a woman! And they had no child.
This, particularly, stabbed Vasya. Although she had not wanted a child, she would have liked to have one for his sake. But it seemed impossible. She never became pregnant. Other women wept and wailed because of their inability to avert the flood of children. But it seemed that she, Vasya, was to be denied the joys of motherhood.
“Anemia,” was the doctor’s opinion.
In order to cheer up Vasya, Vladimir decided to take her to the theatre; he procured the tickets.
Vasya came home at the appointed time. Vladimir was preening himself before the mirror. He had put on fine clothes, and looked like a “gentleman” again. Laughing, Vasya teased him. She loved her handsome man.
“And what’ll you put on ?” He looked at her anxiously. “Haven’t you a Sunday dress?”
Vasya laughed again. What in the world was a Sunday dress? He must have learned that in America, where people dress up in a different outfit every day. She would put on a clean blouse, and the new shoes Volodya had brought her. That was all her finery.
Vladimir looked cross. He scowled at her so that she grew frightened.
“Do you think people will look only at your feet in the theatre? And the rest of your clothes can be sackcloth?”
“I don’t understand why you’re angry, Volodya.”
“How can one help being angry at these organizers of ours! They’ve arranged our lives as if we were in prison. Here you’ve no real amusement, no real home, no decent dress! You have to live in a cage, drink water, eat garbage and wear coarse clothes! Why, I Was better off when I was out of work in the United States!”
“But you can’t expect everything at once. You know – the collapse.”
“Don’t talk to me about the collapse. What sort of organizers have we, anyhow? They’ve torn down everything with their own hands, but if anyone wants to do something constructive they shout: ‘Do you want to become burshuis? Hands off'!’
“No, you don’t know how to live! That’s why everything goes to pieces. I’m sure I didn’t go through the Revolution to lead such a life!”
“Why, the Revolution wasn’t for us!”
"For whom, then?”
“The burshuis, too?”
“Don’t be silly! Of course not for the burshuis! For the workers, the proletariat!”
“And what do you think we are? Not workers, not proletariat?”
They disputed and disputed, almost coming late to the theatre.
Through the streets they went, through the slush of spring. Vladimir walking ahead silently, with huge steps, so that Vasya barely could follow.
“Don’t run so, Volodya. I’m all out of breath.”
Suddenly he stopped and waited. After that he walked more slowly, but still refused to say a word.
In the theatre, Vladimir met some friends, with whom he spent the intermissions. And Vasya had to sit alone.
The theatre gave her no pleasure. Why had she wasted the evening? Now, she would have to work twice as hard in the morning.
The Congress opened shortly before Vladimir’s departure. He attended it, although he was not a delegate. There was wrangling; antagonistic groups were formed. Vladimir was on Vasya’s side. Leaving his friends, he worked for her group wholeheartedly, Now Vasya and Vladimir became inseparable. They went to and from the Congress together, discussed their stand at home. The Comrades of her group crowded Vasya’s room. They drew up resolutions. Vladimir wrote on the typewriter they had procured. Everyone was working swiftly, hurriedly; they seemed welded together. They would become agitated, would quarrel. Then they would laugh again, for no reason but their youth. They liked the battle for its own sake. It kept their minds off their troubles.
Stepan Alexeyevitch was there too, sitting at the table and stroking his fine gray beard. His genial, animated eyes watched youth. Vassilissa was always whispering about something with him. He spoke very highly of her, said she was above the average. But he seemed rather cool toward Vladimir. Vasya was sorry to see it. Why this attitude? Vladimir, too, was distant in his manner.
“Your Stepan Alexeyevitch is too oily for me. He smells of incense. He’s no Communist fighter. Just a toady, that’s all.”
Vasya’s faction was defeated. But she had received more votes than she had expected. That too, was a victory.
As the Congress was drawing to a close, the time of Vladimir’s departure approached. Again Vasya was torn in two. She had to equip him for his trip and the Congress was still going on.
But deep down in her heart Vasya was glad. Once more she had felt that her man was not only her lover but her friend. She was proud of him, for he had been a great help to her group. The Comrades wouldn’t let him go.
“Now good-bye, my Vasyuk. My little sparrow will stay all alone under its gable. Now it won’t have anyone to tell its troubles to. But to make up for that no one’ll disturb you in your work.”
“Did you ever bother me?” She embraced him, fondled him.
“Didn’t you say yourself that your man was taking up your time? Didn’t you complain about the housekeeping?”
“Oh, don’t talk of that. It’s much worse without you.”
And she hid her head against his breast.
“You’re not only my sweetheart, but my comrade, too. That’s why I love you.”
They parted tenderly, on the best of terms.
After seeing off Vladimir she hurried back to the Congress, thinking: no matter how nice it is to be together, you’re better off alone. The presence of your lover distracts your thoughts, makes your work progress too slowly.
Now she could again devote herself entirely to her work. Work and rest. She had never had enough sleep when he was there.
“Did you see your husband off?” Stepan Alexeyevitch asked her at the Congress.
“Yes, Vladimir has gone.”
“That’s better for you. He only got you into debt.”
Vasya was amazed. How had Stepan Alexeyevitch known? But she did not answer. If she had admitted it her lover’s prestige might have suffered.